What Are The Patterns?


One of the questions I often ask founders is “What is working and what’s not working in the business today?” What I’m trying to do is identify the patterns they see among customers.

Identifying patterns and reinforcing them is one of the most important elements in building and scaling a startup. Unfortunately, it’s not a common skill, and if you don’t have it yourself, you will want to make sure it exists somewhere on your executive team.

In an early stage startup, it is essential to to seek out patterns among users and prospects to identify those with a higher likelihood of paying you. The patterns are key elements of why your product resonates with certain people and not others.

While it’s tempting to make this a quantitative exercise based on title, company size, vertical market and so on, the question you are trying to answer is: what causes some prospects to buy and not others? Demographic issues have an influence, but it may also come down to the particular problem the customers are trying to solve and the circumstances around it. I have found it helpful to understand the qualitative elements around customer situations and then try to determine ways to enable customers in those situations to put up their hand and identify their need.

At MySQL, we had a scale problem many startup companies would envy. We had millions of users and thirty thousand new downloads every day. The high volume of users made it harder to distinguish between free open source users and corporate customers who might be inclined to pay. A big part of the job in marketing and sales was to identify patterns which put people into one bucket or the other. We developed a content strategy that made it easy for users to self-select into different categories.

For example, we knew that there was a class of applications for embedding a SQL database into an application or hardware appliance for which MySQL was demonstrably better than competing databases from Oracle, Microsoft and others. So we created webinars, white papers and case studies that highlighted how to evaluate MySQL as an embedded solution. These were targeted specifically to engineering managers and product managers who were the most likely decision makers. Now instead of searching for a needle in a haystack, we had a much more clearly set of prospects who were trying to learn all the could about the problem they were trying to solve.

The embedded use of MySQL wasn’t the dominant pattern among our users. It was probably somewhere between 15 and 20%. But we knew they had very specific requirements of low-maintenance, high efficiency, low-memory requirements for which MySQL was ideally suited. And it was a very profitable segment with deal sizes that could be well into six figures.

We developed similar content strategies for CIOs (and those who wanted to become CIOs!) to learn about open source technology, for Database Administrators who wanted to improve SQL performance, for users concerned with security and so on.

Once you uncover patterns about your users, you can use that information to better optimize your sales and marketing approach. These patterns may also suggest opportunities for features which better serve specific segments of the market.

You don’t need a pattern to represent the vast majority of your buyers for it to be useful. As long as it can be identified and targeted, it may be worthwhile. (Or said differently, there is rarely a single unified pattern that meaningfully defines all your users.)  In fact, trying paint such a broad picture of your audience may yield such generic information as to be completely useless. It is better to be laser focused on specific types of customers and use cases than to be a wandering generality.

And although quantitative analysis can be helpful, I have found that the two best ways to uncovering patterns are to talk to customers and talk to sales people. Just ask: why did they buy from you? And listen.  The most successful sales people often have a highly developed intuition around customer patterns. But in my experience, only about 20% of sales people are good at explaining those patterns back to management. So your best bet is to do customer visits with sales people and then ask the sales rep how often they see similar situations. That’s also a good reason to have marketing people take part in customer calls. You want your marketing team seeing what the sales people see and helping to identify patterns. 

What experiments can you run to uncover patterns among your users? What makes some users buy and others stall? And how can you better serve those distinct segments? What changes to your product, marketing or sales process can you use to optimize for patterns?

Are there patterns you've seen in your business that have been helpful? Let me know by posting a comment below. 

Listen More

As leaders rise in an organization they develop great skills as speakers. They give speeches at conferences or on podcasts, skate through interviews with press and analysts, paint visions of success for investors and motivate their teams to do great work. This is all part of being an executive. But sometimes, they get so used to speaking they forget the most important thing: listening.

Often executives get brought into customer meetings to speak to the strategy, the product roadmap, give their insights into the industry and perhaps the history of the company. Those are important topics, for sure.

But the more an executive is talking, the less they are listening. This is especially true of founders, CEOs and CTOs. The audience may be in such awe of their past accomplishments, that they go along with whatever vision has been communicated. Sometimes that means they are swayed by the presentation and buy-in full-heartedly. Other times, it might mean they don’t raise questions or objections.

It is exceedingly rare executive who has the gift for listening to customers. And yet, it’s the only way to ensure that you are building products that resonate with the market.
There’s a certain amount of BS in the tech industry that emanates from the Steve Jobs view of the world that customers don’t know what they want. Henry Ford was famous for saying that if he asked customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse. Unfortunately, most founders and executives are not Steve Jobs or Henry Ford. Most executives would do better with at least 50% more listening than talking, whether with customers or employees.

For certain highly technical products, it’s fair to say that customers might not know the best architectural solution to their problem. However, customers are experts in understanding the problems they have and which problems are a high priority and which are not.

Many marketplace failures stem from interesting technical solutions to problems that customers don’t have or don’t care about. Asking open ended questions and listening are the only way to understand their needs and priorities.

Executives who profess that customers don’t know what they want are demonstrating contempt to the very people who pay their salaries. Not only does this risk product failure, but it can also result in a culture of arrogance.

One of the most impactful things I did at Duo Security was take what was a somewhat disconnected product team and get them out talking to customers. I set objectives for them to meet with 2 customers per month, each, which was more than they had done in the prior six months. In fact, they hadn’t talked to any customers. I helped them create a structured set of open-ended questions to uncover the problems they actually cared about. The savvier people on the product team made friends with their sales colleagues to get in front of customers, learn what they could and then shared the results across the entire engineering team. And while there was sometimes a level of panic that certain planned features did not seem to solve problems the customers cared about, over a few short weeks, we were able to re-orient Engineering toward the problems that really mattered.

Subsequent to this, we routinely invited customers to speak in person at our all-hands meeting, where they were interviewed on stage by our head of customer success. Customers explained what they liked and what they disliked about our product. Some came with a set of features they wanted to see in future product releases. I saw engineers hanging off every word from a customer who complained about the amount of retraining required for his users based on what had seemed like a fairly innocuous user interface change. Engineers talked about some of these customer interviews for years afterward. It truly reshaped the culture to become hugely customer centric, a trait that was a significant advantage for us in the market place. We no longer had to guess whether a new release would be successful or not. We were validating features with prospects and customers before we shipped.

I have never seen a company fail because it listened too much to customers. But I’ve seen the opposite many times.

As an executive how often do you listen to customers? How do you share the lessons learned from customer success and sales more broadly in the company? How can you make customer focus a bigger part of the culture?

Let me know your feedback or questions by posting a comment below.